Sunday, April 7, 2013

Director Spotlight #13.15: Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is one of cinema’s finest directors of actors, Elia Kazan.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 84/A-

Elia Kazan was only one of the many filmmakers to tap into the generational divide of the 1950s and 1960s, but few directors could rival him in terms of pure expression. Kazan’s 1961 film Splendor in the Grass serves as a terrific companion piece to his 1955 masterpiece East of Eden, but where the earlier film zeroed in on a troubled father/son relationship, the later film takes on a more controversial aspect of growing up: teen sexuality. Splendor in the Grass is less focused than East of Eden, but it stands as one of Kazan’s greatest blows against Puritanical ideals.

1928: Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty in his film debut) is a rich kid and high school football star. His girlfriend Wilda Dean “Deanie” Loomis (Natalie Wood) is from a working class family. Bud and Deanie feel an overwhelming passion and love for each other, but their small Kansas town has a rather strict and Puritanical view on sex. Bud’s father Ace (Pat Hingle) pushes his son to succeed and go to Yale and discourages his relationship with Deanie, all while criticizing the choices of Bud’s flapper sister Ginny (Barbara Loden). Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) stresses how women shouldn’t desire men the same way men desire women. The conflict between desire and society’s expectations then do damage to the young couples’ psyches.

Splendor in the Grass sees Kazan working for a third time with cinematographer Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront, Baby Doll), and again the two find a beautiful balance between expression (flowing waterfalls for sexual desire) and realism (the emotional performances from the stars, captured in tight close-ups). Kazan and screenwriter William Inge know that they have to push their characters to psychological extremes, as teenage years come with uncontrollable emotion and hormones. As such, the love scenes between Beatty and Wood are extraordinarily tender, while the arguments between overbearing parents and emotionally vulnerable teens are extremely volatile.

Kazan gets strong work out of the whole cast (Hingle is quite good as Beatty’s hot-tempered father), but the key supporting player is Kazan’s then-wife Loden. As Ginny, she represents the sad, undeserved truth of what happens to free-spirited women in small towns. Flirty, bubbly, overtly sexual, Loden plays Ginny as someone who pushes against the boundaries of her close-minded peers, only to be ostracized from all of society. The film hints at a pregnancy that led to an abortion and disgrace, and now Ginny is an uncontrollable mess- hard drinking, promiscuous, unpredictable. Kazan and Loden do not judge her behavior, but rather see her as someone who’s been constantly reminded of how she doesn’t measure up to society’s standards, and who must fill an emotional void. It’s a deeply sad performance.

Beatty didn’t have the wide range that many of Kazan’s past male leads had (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift all come to mind), but he’s very good in the quieter of the two lead roles. Played by Beatty, Bud is a sensitive, introverted young man pushed to be macho and successful. The key difference between him and James Dean’s character in East of Eden is that where one was explosive, this one is implosive. Rather than go against his father’s wishes, Bud shrinks and agrees to do whatever his father wants, leading to ill health, inner torment, infidelity to his girlfriend, and a brief alcoholic period when he does go off to college. He is a meek young man trapped in a high school football star’s body.

Wood, in an Oscar-nominated performance, plays the film’s most dynamic character, one pulled at by conflicting messages from her judgmental mother.  On one hand, she’s given demands to stay pure and virginal. On the other hand, she comes from a poor family, and her mother stresses how good it would be for her to marry the wealthy Bud. Wood is, in a way, a clearer successor to the emotionally explosive James Dean than Beatty (fitting, considering that she co-starred with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause). She constantly hangs off of Bud, to the point of the relationship being unhealthy. When the two do break apart, she’s thrown into a nervous breakdown. Wood captures all of the heightened emotions that come with adolescent love, and the performance stands as proof to just how talented she really was.

Kazan plays with color very well to emphasize Deanie’s sexual passion. In the opening scene where she and Bud neck by the waterfall, she wears white as she stops Bud’s advances. Later, after she starts to open up to the possibility that she may want to sleep with Bud after all, she wears pink. At the point of her nervous breakdown, she has cut her long, flowing young hair to a more suggestive (for the era) bob, and she wears a red dress that invites Bud even after they’ve broken up, as she insists that she’s “not a nice girl”. When he rejects her, she goes to the waterfall with another boy, but she cannot sleep with him, and as she dives into the water, it’s a point of deep sexual and psychological confusion. Part of this is Bud’s fault, as he’s had sex with another, more promiscuous girl out of fear. But it’s largely because of society’s idiotic expectations.

Splendor in the Grass is not without its weak points, however. Like Wild River before it, Kazan strays from the central story in order to focus on a matter of social importance, in this case the Great Depression and its effect on Bud’s father. These are the weakest scenes in the film, as they muddle the focus and don’t feel connected to the main story. The last thirty minutes of the film dull the emotional core, throw out Loden’s character in a rather off-handed way (we learn she was killed in a car accident as if it were nothing), and deal with the downfall of Hingle in a way that feels like it’s straining for profundity. The film would have done better to trim many of these scenes and narrow the post-high school material to a few key moments.

Still, it’s a powerful portrait of alienation when it does focus on the two and how they grow up. It’s a tale impressionable kids straining against parents who want what’s best for them but don’t listen to what they actually want. As they’re driven away from home- Deanie to a mental institution, Bud to Yale- they’ve clearly broken from societal expectations. Where the former tries to work out her psychological hang-ups, the latter disappears into boozy depression and moodiness. They do find balance in the end, as the echo of Deanie’s melancholy reading of a William Wordsworth poem speaks to their bittersweet meeting at the end. They can’t concern themselves with their lost youthful ideals anymore. They can only take what they’ve been given.

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